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Fruit for thought

‘Catch the bus,’ organic grower says, as School Aid embarks in Hood River

For Hood River Valley orchardist John Jacobson, it’s all about the school bus. Catching it, and not falling off. It’s so simple, and yet so many things depend on it.

“You don’t want to miss this bus,” Jacobson says, fervently. “It’s a nice, friendly bus.” Jacobson, who’s been an Upper Valley orchardist for 21 years, has gone all gray at 56. But energy flies from his tall, lanky frame; passion shines from his blue eyes — energy and passion, at least, for anything having to do with the bus, and so many things in his life do.

The bus, at its most tangible, is actually a sticker affixed to apples grown on his orchard, Mt. Hood Organic Farms, and sold at Rosauers supermarket in the Heights. The red stickers have a yellow school bus on them, with kids’ faces looking out the windows. The stickers say “School Aid” on them, and each time an apple or pear with the sticker is bought, 50 cents of the $1.09 per pound cost goes directly to the music programs at Wy’east and Hood River middle schools and Hood River Valley High School.

But the bus is much more than that.

The bus, at its most symbolic, is this: an equal opportunity ride to school for 5-year-olds, those wide-eyed sponges full of wonder at the world and dreams of what they’ll be when they grow up.

But that simple, unhindered, cacophonous bus ride to school changes for many of those 5-year-olds as they grow up and progress through the 13-year education process culminating in high school graduation. Some of them along the way start sitting alone on the bus, or they begin missing the bus more and more often. Some finally quit riding it — or, as Jacobson puts it, they fall off the bus altogether.

“Kids don’t know, at 5 years old, if their parents went to an Ivy League school, or didn’t go to school,” Jacobson says. They all have the same thoughts, hopes and dreams.

“Along the way that changes,” he says. “By the end of the 13 year process, there’s a stratification as hard as limestone. A lot of that stratification is based on how kids perceive themselves.” From experience, Jacobson knows that kids lose their self-esteem and fall off the bus for all kinds of reasons. Maybe they have a tough home life. Maybe there’s no encouragement or praise or even talk about what’s happening at school — or what’s happening in a child’s life at all.

And Jacobson believes that when kids fall through the cracks, or off the bus, the whole community suffers.

“If you studied things in a community that you might say are broken, that you’d like to fix,” Jacobson says, “a lot of those things probably can be traced back to people who do not have a lot of success — because they didn’t have a lot of success in school.” Even when classrooms and schools are first-rate, Jacobson says, many children don’t succeed.

“Class time is consumed by teaching, testing and the assignment of homework,” he says. Success in school, he believes, requires study after class, and participation in activities and programs outside the classroom.

It takes these things, says Jacobson, to ensure that kids have the same dreams when they’re 12, and 18, that they did when they were 5.

And that is what School Aid is all about.

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Jacobson has spent the last 2½ years working to get the School Aid stickers on his fruit in grocery stores. But it began long before that. It began when Jacobson was a wide-eyed 5-year-old starting school in San Francisco, full of dreams of what he would be when he grew up. His father had never finished the 8th grade, but Jacobson didn’t know that then. His family lived in a housing project, but that meant nothing to him then.

It was only later that these twists of fate caught up with him. By 5th grade, Jacobson was cutting school regularly. By junior high, he believed that he was not smart enough to succeed in school.

He made it to high school, then became the first student to ever be expelled from his Catholic school. By then his parents had separated. He moved with his father to a small northern California town and enrolled at the local high school. But he was by then, as he puts it, “a troubled kid.” He made it to his senior year, then just stopped going to school. He was a drop-out at age 17.

After a year, he knew he’d made a mistake. He enrolled at a junior college and was elected student body president. It was the tumultuous 1960s, and he brought political speakers to campus, organized rallies and spearheaded academic conferences. For the first time, he felt success in school — even if it was mostly in extracurricular pursuits.

Believing he was dumb, he enrolled in the bottom-rung English class — English 64. He wrote a paper and it was returned with comments from the professor. A+, the teacher had written. This is the best paper I’ve ever read. Why are you in this class?

Jacobson can see that note written by that professor as clearly today as when he held it in his hands 35 years ago.

“You can lose a kid by not having him know that,” Jacobson says. “Or you can save him by making him know that.” Jacobson was saved.

Soon after, he was drafted and went to Vietnam as a medic. He took correspondence courses, and from the jungle, he wrote to the University of California at Berkeley asking how he could gain admittance to the prestigious school.

Eventually, he did. He graduated and was accepted to medical school.

In the end, he opted out of medicine.

“Starting too late in life is difficult,” he says. He became the owner of a successful company that remodeled historic homes in the Bay Area. After a few years, he put himself on a 24-month plan: he would search the West and within 24 months, would find the place he wanted to live. In the midst of his 24-month plan he met Brady, the woman he would marry. Then, in month 18, he found Hood River.

“This is a striking place on Earth,” Jacobson says. “I never got used to how pretty this valley is — I still haven’t.” He and Brady planned to live in Hood River, and he would commute to his job in San Francisco. Then their first child was born with cerebral palsy. Within a month, Jacobson sold his San Francisco business and began learning to be an orchardist in the Hood River Valley.

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Jacobson has struggled for the last 21 years to eke out a living at something he never dreamed of doing. Choosing to grow fruit organically 13 years ago has made things even tougher. Jacobson’s own past, the ever-present beauty of the valley he’s continually thankful for discovering, his work in the increasingly “rugged” orchard business, watching his daughters (he and Brady have three, ranging in age from 14 to 20) go through the local schools with their quality programs and teachers increasingly threatened by budget cuts — all of this began brewing into a thought-provoking mental stew for Jacobson a few years ago.

“I began to realize about fruit — if I had it all or had none of it, it wouldn’t really matter,” he says. “What was special was not that I grew fruit, but that I grew fruit in a beautiful place. Was there a way I could grow fruit and make it make a difference?”

On his frequent drives to and from Portland to deliver fruit (in his truck that is “held together by baling wire”) an idea took hold — an idea that involved making his fruit work for kids. Perhaps he could get stores to buy his organic fruit at five cents per pound wholesale, sell it for a price competitive even with non-organic fruit and give the profits to school programs. He could provide a meager — but steady — income for his family so that he would stop having to sell chunks of his property to survive and keep growing fruit to sell to help kids. He decided to start big — in Portland, where there were more kids falling off the bus.

Jacobson eventually hooked up with well-connected Portland businessman Sho Dozono, who embraced the idea. It took more than two years and many false starts, but eventually Dozono and Jacobson presented the idea for School Aid to Fred Meyer and New Seasons markets. Both liked it and signed on. The supermarkets have been selling Jacobson’s fruit since October, with profits going to the Portland Schools Foundation where it is available for programs like Oregon Mentors, tutoring, and after school homework clubs.

While he was working to get School Aid up and running in Portland (and at The Dalles Fred Meyer), he began looking for a way to extend the program to his own community in Hood River.

Jacobson had spent hours sitting on wooden bleachers watching his daughters perform in music programs led by Dennis Hillen at Wy’east Middle School.

“I’ve never met Mr. Hillen, but there’s an unquestionable excellence about him as a teacher,” Jacobson says. “He imparts this great gift to the community. There’s no question in my mind about that.” As long-threatened budget cuts became a reality last year, Jacobson was compelled to act.

“I kept thinking, should Mr. Hillen’s programs be cut?” he says. “No. It’s absolutely essential that they’re not.” To Jacobson, it’s classes like those taught by Hillen — and other music teachers — that can instill necessary confidence in a struggling student, that just might save him or her from slipping away, from falling off the bus.

Jacobson went to Rosauers with the same idea that was getting underway at Fred Meyer and New Seasons in Portland. Manager Mike Myhre wanted the store to be Hood River’s School Aid partner, and took the necessary steps with the company’s headquarters in Spokane, Wash., to make it happen.

Last week, Myhre, Jacobson and Produce Manager James DeLong set up the School Aid bin in Rosauers’ produce section, and by week’s end had already sold several hundred pounds of fruit.

Rosauers makes no profit on the sale of School Aid fruit; only its costs for shipping, handling and lost product are covered. Jacobson makes five cents per pound on the fruit. The rest — 50 cents per pound — goes directly and equally to the music departments at the two middle schools and Hood River Valley High School.

Ed Drew, principal at Wy’east Middle School, thinks School Aid could be what saves some of his school’s programs from being eliminated.

“Last year, all our co-curricular programs took big cuts,” Drew says. This year’s bleak budget outlook promises more. “This could just be the thing that salvages a lot of that,” he says.

“Everybody wins,” Jacobson says. The School Aid fruit available at Rosauers will alternate between apples and pears, but will always cost $1.09 per pound. The Honey Crisp apples on sale now for School Aid usually retail for $2.49 per pound.

“This is not political, but for someone who might like to buy organic but doesn’t want to pay more, this is a good value.

“Nobody gives up anything,” he adds. “I haven’t found anything wrong with it yet.”

But Jacobson knows the program is now in a critical phase.

“Rosauers is playing the role of a modern-day, benevolent Rumpelstiltskin,” he says. “Now it needs the community to go out and embrace it.”

When Jacobson isn’t working at his orchard or in his packing house, or at the supermarkets in Portland where School Aid fruit is being sold talking to shoppers about it, he’s at Rosauers cutting up samples of Honey Crisp apples and telling shoppers how they can benefit local kids by “catching the bus.”

“If shoppers support this program, then the Hood River Valley has a new little creek,” he says. “It’ll survive all the droughts.”

As for Jacobson? He says his “prize” was finding the Hood River Valley at month 18.

“If we can take fruit from this wonderful place we all live in, and say to the industry, ‘You don’t need mine, I’ll sell it for the common good,’” he says. “There you have something elegant.”

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